Would you like to smell hundreds of years old Ottoman perfume bottles in Istanbul?

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Editor : Koray Erdoğan
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Bekir Kantarci, a collector who has been collecting fragrance bottles and containers from all over the world for years, says, ‘There is great delicacy in our fragrance containers, but we are unaware of the Ottoman fragrance culture. Unfortunately, we do not have a fragrance museum’

Would you like to smell hundreds of years old Ottoman perfume bottles in Istanbul?

EXCLUSIVE BY MURAT OZTEKIN - Bekir Kantarci has been after the scent of the past for many years... Kantarci has been collecting antique fragrance bottles and objects related to scent for more than thirty years. "In some bottles, you can still smell scents that are hundreds of years old," says the collector, adding that fragrance used to be an art both in terms of its content and its bottles. Kantarci, who presented dozens of objects selected from his 10,000-piece collection to art lovers at the exhibition titled "Gilaf-i Reyya" at the Istanbul Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts, considers this as the first step of his museum dream. The exhibition, which was opened with the contributions of Kuveyt Turk, is curated by art consultant Beste Gursu. We talked to Kantarci...

Fragrance bottles are interesting objects. How did you come to collect them?

Actually, I've been in the fragrance trade since my university years, so I started collecting historical fragrance bottles for inspiration. Then it turned into a serious collecting. It started with small objects and then they grew. I have been collecting scent bottles and books on scent for more than thirty years. I also have a fragrance library.

Where do you mostly come across antiques related to scent?

In the beginning, I used to buy fragrance bottles from junk dealer bazaars behind Beyazit. Then I started to attend auctions. I was able to buy beautiful objects at reasonable prices. Over time, the works of other fragrance collectors were passed on to me in different ways. The arrival of the materials, documents and books of Ahmed Faruki, the first Ottoman perfumer, was an event I will never forget.

How large is your collection now; what's in it?

As your fragrance bottle collection expands, it becomes more difficult to classify it. I have created about 130 detailed headings, but my primary area of interest are fragrance bottles, gulabdans and incense burners made of Beykoz glass. We have fragrance bottles used by the Ottoman sultans and fragrance objects belonging to the royal families of Europe. There are also miniature pocket fragrance containers, each one a work of art. I also collect the bottles of the first Ottoman cologne makers. In total, there are nearly ten thousand objects in my collection. My oldest work dates back to the 1700s. I have artifacts until the 1950s.

Is it because of the high value of fragrance at that time that old fragrance bottles are so beautiful?

Of course, since fragrances were precious, fragrance bottles were also given importance. Fragrance bottles were also produced like works of art. Precious fragrances were displayed in precious bottles.

So, what do you want to achieve with the fragrance bottles you collect?

Although there are museums in thousands of unimaginable fields in Türkiye, unfortunately there is no fragrance museum. This has always boggled my mind. That's why I have a dream of establishing a fragrance museum. I would like to create such a museum in Istanbul.


Now you are carrying your collection here to the exhibition titled "Gilaf-i Reyya." I think this is the first step of the museum you want to establish.

Yes, it's true. The name of the exhibition means fragrance containers in Ottoman Turkish. Nowadays, the interest in fragrance has increased, young people love scent design. However, information about our fragrance history is not readily available. Therefore, we are unaware of the Ottoman fragrance culture. In this sense, we want to show our history with fragrance antiques. Because there is a great culture and delicacy in fragrance containers. Here, besides the various fragrance bottles used in the Ottoman Empire, we offer visitors the chance to experience those scents. In other words, we also make them smell our history.


For years, you have been chasing old fragrances with historical bottles. Was it as easy to produce fragrances in the past as it is today?

It used to be more difficult to produce fragrances. Because it was not easy to reach the raw materials of fragrances in the times when there were no synthetic materials. The most precious substances came from the Far East. Evliya Celebi says that there were nearly 500 scent shops in Istanbul at one time. So these raw materials were being snapped up.

So, which fragrances were most preferred in the Ottoman Empire, where beautiful bottles stood out?

In the Ottoman Empire, musk, amber and oud were at the center of fragrances. The musk coming out of the pouch in the belly of the gazelle is a blessing from Allah. Rose scent was also preferred because it reminds us of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).

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